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Pathbreakers of Arab America—Shereen Abu Akleh

posted on: May 1, 2024

Photo Al-Jazeera

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

Here, we diverge from our regular pathbreaker series. That is because we honor Shereen Abu Akleh as an Arab American pathbreaker for a second time. Shereen was originally our twentieth pathbreaker. Now we reprieve the earlier article, adding to it because this coming May 11 is the second anniversary of Shereen’s murder. Abu-Akleh, a Palestinian American, was born in East Jerusalem on the occupied West Bank on April 3, 1971. She was an outstanding journalist, reporting from around the Arab World but focused on Palestine for Al-Jazeera. Abu Akleh was murdered on May 11, 2022, in Jenin on the West Bank at age 51 from a bullet wound fired by an Israeli Defense Force soldier while she was reporting.

Abu Akleh, known across the Arab World for her excellent reporting, inspired young Palestinians and other Arabs to take up journalism

Shereen Abu Akleh’s parents, Louli and Nasri Abu Akleh were Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem who belonged to the Melkite Catholic Church. Because her parents died young, she spent part of her youth in the U.S. with members of her mother’s family in New Jersey, her route to U.S. citizenship. She attended secondary school in Palestine at Rosary Sisters High School, followed by the University of Science and Technology in Beit Hanina, Jordan. Preferring a more people-oriented career, Abu Akleh transferred to Yarmouk University in Jordan, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. She then returned to Palestine to pursue her journalism career.

Abu Akleh noted early on in her career that she “chose journalism to be close to people. It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I could bring their voice to the world.” (Wikipedia) She worked in journalism with several organizations, regional and international. In 1997, she began working as a journalist for Al-Jazeera, one of its first field correspondents on its Arabic language channel. Shereen became well-known in the region as an Al-Jazeera reporter. Her reporting included stories on the second Intifada, 2,000-2005, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Abu Akleh was known across the Arab World for her excellent reporting, including her distinct signoffs. Her enthusiastic reporting inspired young Palestinians and other Arabs to become journalists. Upon her death, respected newspapers in the U.S. and Israel referred to her as a “household name” among Palestinians and “a veteran journalist among Arab media’s most prominent figures.” Because of political disagreements between Qatar, which backed Al-Jazeera financially, and Egypt, Al-Jazeera reporters were banned from reporting in Egypt. However, in July 2021, with improved relations between the two countries, Shereen was the first Al-Jazeera journalist in some time to broadcast live from Cairo.

Abu Akleh, wanting to be close to the Palestinian people, focused her journalism on bringing their voices to the world Photo Al-Jazeera.

Abu Akleh often reported on Israeli politics, including conflicts involving the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on the West Bank. In time, she believed the IDF and armed Israeli settlers targeted her. Shereen noted that the IDF repeatedly accused her of photographing security areas. Such accusations were cumulative and much later bore on the end of her career and her life.

Abu Akleh’s death — Israel shrugs off accountability in her murder

An official account by the Palestinian Health Ministry reported the death of Abu Akleh on May 11, 2022. On that day, Shereen had been reporting on an IDF raid in Jenin Refugee Camp on the West Bank when, according to witnesses and Al-Jazeera, she was shot and killed by the IDF. Al-Jazeera accused Israel of deliberately targeting the victim. She wore a flak jacket, clearly marked in enlarged letters, ‘PRESS,’ unmistakable to miss. The raid, the IDF purported, was targeted at capturing “terror suspects.” Al-Jazeera said that Abu Akleh was shot in the head by the IDF and then transported to Ibn Sina Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She was 51 years old.

Arab America, reporting on September 14, 2022, wrote: Only last week did the Israeli military admit it was ‘highly probable’ an IDF soldier mistakenly killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Over and over, Israeli officials swore that none of the soldiers intended to harm the journalist. They ruled out any criminal investigation or charges against its troops. That is a criminal act in itself. Saying Abu Akleh’s killing was an accident does not let the IDF off the hook. That she was misidentified is preposterous. Or that there were Palestinian gunmen in the area who might have fired on her is an outright lie.

Abu Akleh was one of forty-five journalists killed by Israeli soldiers since 2000. The Israeli Defense Force reported that it was conducting its inquiry. Arab America earlier reported that the IDF’s probe was not criminal. Israel insisted the murder took place during an arrest raid and, thus, the Army did not consider it a criminal act. Democratic U.S. House members demanded an FBI investigation.

Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to join the IDF in the probe. It said that Israel could not fairly examine the actions of its members. The PA had initially rejected an Israeli request to turn over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh. News source Haaretz reported, “The Israeli army admitted on Monday that it is ‘highly probable’ Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by an Israeli soldier.”

Mourners carry coffin holding Abu Akleh, on which is laid a Palestinian flag and a flak jacket marked ‘Press’ — Photo Al-Jazeera.

Israel’s official probe found that an Israeli soldier “likely mistakenly” shot Abu Akleh. The offending soldier was apparently under fire while peering through his telescopic scope. He then misidentified Abu Akleh as “an armed Palestinian gunman.” IDF officials also said it could not rule out “the possibility that Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian gunfire.” But it also admitted that it was more likely an Israeli soldier was responsible.

The Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi, called Abu Akleh’s death “an unfortunate incident.” He further noted that the incident occurred “during operational activity to thwart Palestinian terror.” Adding insult to injury, the Israeli Military Advocate General’s Office indicated it would not open an investigation into any soldiers involved in the incident. That Office averred, “There is no suspicion that a criminal offense was committed.”

Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset made clear their opposition to the facile Army defense of the killing. Deputy Knesset Speaker and head of the Joint List party, Ahmad Tibi, called for an external investigation. He asserted the Army has no right to “grant automatic immunity to those who shot.”

The American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, responded to Shireen’s murder, expressing its “outrage at the assassination of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11th, 2022.” It demanded that the United States government and Congress lead an investigation and processing of those responsible for the assassination.

A U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation attempt to investigate Abu Akleh’s death has been resisted by the Israeli government and, in effect, has stalled as of 2023. The IDF, on May 12, 2023, apologized for the first time for the death of Abu Akleh. This is not the first time the IDF has killed a journalist– press advocacy groups have documented at least 20 journalists killed by Israeli military fire since 2001, 18 of those killed being Palestinian. No one has ever been charged or held accountable for these deaths.

Celebrating Shireen’s Life — 2024

Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen Abu Akleh’s niece, accepts the U.S. National Press Club’s President’s Award for journalism on behalf of her late aunt on August 31, 2022 — Photo U.S. Press Club.

On May 9, 2024,10 AM-2 PM, the Arab Center of Washington is sponsoring a memorial symposium for Shireen at the National Press Club. The memorial will be in person and on Zoom. The symposium program is described as follows:

Two years after the killing of acclaimed Palestinian-American Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank and as the Israeli military has killed an unprecedented number of Palestinian journalists during its campaign in Gaza, this symposium will focus on the challenges of covering Palestine. The panels in this conference will focus on both the journalists at risk on the ground as well as an assessment of Western media coverage of Palestine and, in particular, the war on Gaza.”

We all miss Shireen—may her example as a superb journalist covering Palestine and Palestinians serve as a model for all impassioned reporting on oppressed peoples worldwide.

–“Shereen Abu Akleh,” Wikipedia Bios of Arab Americans, 2023-24
–“Israeli military admits ‘highly probable’ IDF soldier mistakenly killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh,” Haaretz, 9/05/2022
–“‘We will bring justice’: US press club honors Shireen Abu Akleh,” Al-Jazeera, 9/01/2022
–“In U.S. journalist’s death, Israel leaves questions unanswered,” Washington Post Opinion, 9/8/2022
–“Israel Shrugs off Accountability in Murder of Palestinian American Journalist—Shireen Abu Akleh,” Arab America, 9/14/2022

John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history and is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America. The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.

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